The Common Good
January 2005

Better Living Through Technology

by Danny Duncan Collum | January 2005

Turning on to life by turning off the box.

All the dystopian novels I read as a teenager have come true,

All the dystopian novels I read as a teenager have come true, or are in the process of doing so.

Books aren’t banned yet, as they were in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But if you look at mass reading habits, especially in the generations rising, the trend line is clear. By the end of this century Bradbury’s nightmare could be real, and, as in the novel, almost no one will notice or care.

The recent presidential campaign showed us that, as in George Orwell’s 1984, today inconvenient facts of history can simply be put down the memory hole. During that campaign, young John Kerry’s report to Congress on U.S. atrocities in Vietnam was labeled a slander by his opponents and treated as an item of controversy by the mainstream media. The cold, hard, documented facts about mass murders, torture, and carpet bombing - the collateral damage of a war against an entire people - seem to have disappeared down Orwell’s hole. Even the institutions that reported those atrocities in the late 1960s and early 1970s (such as CBS and The New York Times) can’t quite seem to recall.

But on the whole, 21st-century America most closely resembles Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World - a society ruled by mindless pleasure and convenience. We can swallow pills to deliver socially acceptable moods or to erase painful memories. We haven’t quite detached sex from reproduction. (In Huxley’s world, babies were made-to-order in factories.) But our rage for reproductive technologies, and our worship at the altar of "choice," is leading us briskly down that road.

Television loomed large in the visions of all these mid-century dystopian writers. When the tube was still in gestation, they homed in on its potential to distract, deceive, and dumb-down the populace. And that’s the way it’s turned out. Today we’re only left to wonder whether technology, coupled with the will to be human, can possibly undo the damage done by technology joined with the will to power.

THOSE ARE THE questions raised by inventor Mitch Altman’s new gizmo, the TV-B-Gone, a universal remote that can turn off all those television sets moored to ceilings of airports, bus stations, restaurants, doctors’ offices, school cafeterias, etc. Altman, whose invention was reported at length in Steve Bodzin’s October 19 story on Wired.com, sees public-space television as a phenomenon akin to second-hand smoke. One sends unbidden carcinogens into our lungs, the other spews unwanted images and ideas into the private space within our skulls and into the budding minds of young children. The more he thought about it, the more Altman realized that he wasn’t just dealing with an invasion of privacy, but a public health problem.

One night, after a dinner with friends at which conversation was repeatedly stalled by the allure of a restaurant TV, Altman, a Silicon Valley techno-whiz, set out to solve the problem once and for all. His tiny device emits the "power" signal for every brand of television he could find. You can walk by, switch it off, and no one will ever know what happened. Altman gave the Wired reporter a demonstration in the TV section of a Best Buy.

Television’s elimination of personal privacy was one of the dangers identified by the old dystopians. In 1984, all the telescreens were two-way. They watched you while you watched them. And you couldn’t turn that off. With the spread of "always-on" sets in public places and the rapid spread of video surveillance, we’ve almost reached Orwell’s vision, just 20 years late. And even when the public-space TVs aren’t two-way, they still invade our consciousness, leaving us a little less capable of independent and self-directed thought.

Of course, today’s telescreens aren’t there to propagandize us on behalf of Big Brother and his endless wars. They’re just filling the air and selling stuff. But at a deeper level, that may be a distinction without a difference. Does it really matter whether we’re afraid to think or just too distracted to do so?

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. You can order a TV-B-Gone at www.tv-b-gone.com.

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